Moorland Burning

Part of Asylum Seekers and Permission to Work – in Westminster Hall at 4:32 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam 4:32 pm, 18th November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of moorland burning.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the important issue of moorland burning. I hope no one in this House would dispute that we are in a climate and nature emergency. That means we have not only a moral imperative to ban this destructive practice, but environmental, ecological and existential imperatives to protect and restore our precious peatlands.

The UK peatlands contain an estimated 3,200 million tonnes of carbon, more than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. There is no way that the Government can tackle the climate crisis without ensuring that our peatlands continue to store that colossal quantity of carbon. It would be a catastrophe if it were released and, yet that is exactly what is happening.

While upland peatland should be a net carbon sink, continued mismanagement means that the UK’s peatlands are a net source of emissions. When they could and should be being used for carbon sequestration to safely store carbon, our peat bogs are instead releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that that is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide released by 140,000 cars a year. The cause is moorland burning.

Between the 1940s and the present, there has been a sevenfold increase in burning on peatland in England alone. In Great Britain, between 2001 and 2011, burning increased at a rate of 11% per year. The more we allow that to continue, the greater the acceleration in the climate crisis we will see before our eyes. We will also see impacts on our environment.

Britain’s blanket bogs make up 10% to 15% of the world’s entire resource. Burning peat bogs dries out peat soil and lowers the water table, changing the flora and fauna to advantage species such as grouse, and transforming these rich, biodiverse habitats into distorted ecologies suitable for only a few animals and plants. We have a duty to preserve their vast biodiversity.

The dried peat soil also negatively impacts our water quality by releasing soil carbon into watercourses, which degrades their quality and increases the expense of cleaning our drinking water. That is because the burning harms the sphagnum mosses, which hold water in the peatlands. While the mosses recover, grasses and heather replace and out-compete them, which means that the water runs off down the hills, taking carbon from the peat with it and leading to polluted water. Burnt bogs are consequently less able to slow water flow, which leads to heavier flooding after rainfall.

I am sure my South Yorkshire colleagues will remember the terrible flooding our region suffered last year: 90% of the homes in the village of Fishlake near Doncaster were flooded last November, and, unfortunately, over a year on, some still have not been able to return to their homes. Funding for flood defences is a pressing issue, particularly when the south-east gets double the funding per person of Yorkshire and the Humber and more than five times that of the north-east. We need the Government to deliver fairer funding for flood defences, but we also need to move the debate away from mitigating the effects of the climate and environment emergency to tackling the causes. That means locking carbon in the ground by restoring our upland peat bogs, slowing the water flow, soaking up heavy rainfall and preventing the next flooding crisis before it occurs.

Peatlands also play a vital role in UK water security and must be protected to preserve the UK’s water supply in the coming years. Researchers at the University of Leeds estimate that 72.5% of the storage capacity of reservoirs in the UK is peatlands-fed water. That demonstrates the crucial role that peatlands play in our water security.

In January, the Committee on Climate Change recommended that peat burning should be banned by the end of 2020. The Government have routinely committed to ending the burns, but we have yet to see any legislative progress towards that. Instead, the Government have asked landowners only to sign voluntary agreements not to burn, and they simply are not working. For the sake of our environment, the Government must announce an immediate ban on this destructive practice and restore our peatlands to their natural bog habitats, so that they can deliver for biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

But that is only the first step. Announcing a ban is not the same as enacting one. For example, in my constituency, the moors at Stanage and Strines are both sites of special scientific interest, which means they should be protected areas, yet both regularly see burning. Due to the lack of proper resourcing and maintenance, too many of our protected areas are protected in name only. This Government’s record on maintaining existing areas of environmental protection shows a sustained failure to protect those protected sites.

In 2010, 43% of SSSIs in England were in favourable condition; by 2020 that had dropped to 39%. The condition of SSSIs in England is actually worse in our national parks and areas of natural beauty than outside them. That is a direct consequence of under-resourcing and underfunding conservation—yet another devastating consequence of the last 10 years of austerity. The Government’s own figures show that public sector spending on biodiversity in the UK fell from £641 million to £456 million between 2012 and 2017—a drop of 29%. The RSPB argues that the Government’s approach to achieving nature targets has completely failed due to

“neglect of basic monitoring and compliance, a reliance on voluntary approaches and unwillingness to regulate, and dwindling public resources for action”— a damning summation.

As well as committing to banning peatland burning and giving a firm date on which that will come into effect, Ministers must commit to properly resourcing conservation bodies so that they are able to monitor and clamp down on any illegal burning and ensure that peatlands are rewetted and restored. That is why I am so pleased to support Labour’s plan for a national nature service.

An expansion of spending on maintaining or restoring our peatlands is vital if we are to maintain our zero carbon commitments, but it is also a way of providing the employment stimulus we need in the wake of the pandemic; protecting and maintaining our peat bogs and our natural environment in all its diversity goes hand in hand with creating good-quality public sector jobs.

We should take inspiration from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1942, whose workers planted 3 billion trees and paved the way for America’s system of national and state parks, which were also a central part of the new deal. The national nature service should be at the heart of the green new deal for workers, creating a zero carbon army. We need to manage our moorlands effectively and to lock CO2 into the ground. At the same time, that would provide a host of secure jobs and benefit many people, including young black, Asian and minority ethnic workers, who have been hit hardest by the employment crisis. It would also help to diversify the conservation sector.

Nobody in this debate supports the deregulation of moorlands. The idea that setting fire to large swathes of our countryside is a responsible form of regulation and management is completely incredible. It releases millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, making the climate emergency worse. It destroys habitats and damages the ecosystem and ecologies. As fires rage on our uplands, they increase the threat of floods from our lowland rivers.

We cannot rely on the good will of landowners to stop the burning—just ask the residents of Hebden Bridge and the Calder valley. We all saw on our TVs the damage done to those communities by last year’s flooding, and many now attribute those floods to heather burning on Walshaw moor. Instead, we need to restore and re-wet our peatlands, using them as one of the many natural solutions to the climate crisis. To do that, we must end the year-on-year cuts to spending on the environment and set out a plan for investing in nature. That means having a national nature service to create well-paid, secure, unionised jobs. We need to lock CO2 into the ground and to protect biodiversity and our natural environment’s fragile ecologies. We also need to ensure that those who seek to burn protected peatlands face the full weight of the law.

I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to outline the timetable for bringing forward legislation. It is time to end the fires, floods and climate chaos. It is well past time we banned the burn.